November 03, 2006
Trusting Adrienne Shelly
Just a quick note about Adrienne Shelly – found dead of an apparent suicide at the age of 40, leaving behind a husband, a three-year-old daughter, and one of my favorite movies of all time.
I’m talking about Hal Hartley’s Trust, of course, and I remember that the first time I saw it back in 1991 on a now-tattered VHS copy I later liberated from the local indie store as it was closing its shutters, how I hadn’t, to that point (I was 18 and still young in cinema), seen anything quite like it. It was an inciting moment for me – an introduction into the world of the American independent ethic and, branching from there, the work of Whit Stillman and Jim Jarmusch. I’m not sure that I would have been as receptive as early to that stuff (and later, a goodly portion of my affection for Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach had to do with the directness of their lines trailing back from Trust) if not for the film: for Martin Donovan (wasting too much time now with garbage like The Quiet and “Weeds”) and especially for Shelly.
It wasn’t the quirk that affected me, but the writing and performances: telling too much to say that I connected hard with the depressed television repairman with a grenade and a crush. (Telling, to this day, that there are still large swaths of myself that persists in that identification.) When I learned that Shelly might have hung herself with a bedsheet, I remembered her character Maria’s announcement of her pregnancy leading to the sudden death of her father – and there, vague and filamentous, an emotional, diaphanous connection between her life and this art. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can feel it vibrating in the air.
I haven’t felt this sad about a stranger’s death since Spalding Gray walked into the frozen drink.
Shelly plays a lost soul in Trust that finds grounding with another lost soul – the two agreeing to the compromise of a love relationship while acknowledging the madness of it in a world balanced between acts of kindness, caprice, and enfolding, enveloping entropy. For a long time, every mix tape I made for a girlfriend or potential girlfriend included a sound clip I’d captured from this film involving Donovan’s Matthew character describing his grenade and Maria asking deadpan if he’s mentally deranged. Encapsulated in that small, perfectly-written exchange is volatility and the desperation for connection married, thick as monks, to the idea that the very idea of grace on this ugly, ungainly ball is akin to sublimity itself. Trust is in its way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind about fifteen years earlier.
The last shot of the film is traffic lights changing over.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot today.